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Tech and train-hopping

A scale model steam train runs at the 'London Model Engineering Exhibition' at Alexander Palace on January 20, 2012 in London, England.

Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson (L) with his father, Kit Johnson (R)

My family likes to tell stories. Sometimes they get changed and exaggerated in the retelling: Dad got chased by a grizzly. No, it was two grizzlies. It was two grizzlies and he was on a horse. Wasn't it?

But one story I know to be true, at least in its simplest form: My dad used to hop trains out west.

I remember him telling me how dangerous it was. Sometimes the train would stop where you wanted to get off, sometimes it wouldn't. You had to hit the ground running as fast as you could just to stay on your feet and avoid falling into the tracks and under the wheels.

My family is from Colorado, and this is the type of story that reminds me of our roots. 

That's why when I heard about Ted and Asa Conover's story, I had to talk to them. This father and son duo is from New York City, but they've both caught the train-hopping bug --Ted first, then Asa -- and went on an adventure together to do it.

I can vaguely remember adventures like that with my own father. Not as dangerous or as illegal, but walking the line. Linking arms so we could pull something out of the rubble at the town dump because it wasn't trash. Hopping a fence here or there. As a kid you have to learn boundaries by pushing against them, and if you're lucky you have a guardian who helps you learn how to do that and survive it. 

The interesting thing about this week's conversation with the Conovers is that technology has changed the game of train-hopping. It used to be an oral tradition of sorts -- knowing the right moves and knowing when and where a train might stop. Heck, at any given time you could be riding a train and have no real idea how far you'd traveled or how close you were to your destination. But now there are smart phones and PDF documents shared among the hoppers that detail the gathered knowledge of this illegal pastime. There's even a rumor -- almost a tech ghost story -- about a special infrared scanner that law enforcement uses to catch people train-hopping near Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Ted Conover was saying that no matter how tech has changed the process, your success still depends completely on your own ingenuity. I thought that sounded like hacking, and he agreed. 

We all see our world change as we get older, and we lament the change. School shootings make for exhaustive visitation rules. More lawyers make for neighbors who don't invite you to use their pool on a hot day. Smart phones make for staring at screens instead of interacting with and meeting strangers. In the case of train-hopping, technology seems to hinder and help; depending on how you define "bad" and "good," it's got a bit of both.

Yeah, I know hopping trains is illegal and dangerous, and I'm not trying to encourage others to do it. In fact I would discourage people from doing it (for the record, Ted Conover probably would too). But that doesn't mean it's a story we shouldn't tell. It's part of my own family history -- part that's always made me proud to have a connection to the west. Like riding horses or knowing how to start a fire in the snowpack, there's something about train-hopping that makes me feel proud of the people and place where I come from. This July 4th week, that feels just about right. 

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson (L) with his father, Kit Johnson (R)

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